Grabarka is a tiny village close to Siemiatycze, Poland. Well, you probably haven’t heard of Siemiatycze either. They aren’t too touristy, but there certainly are numerous reasons why you should memorize these names.
Firstly, because Podlasie region is the best place to discover diversity in Polish history, culture, and society; Secondly, because Grabarka is home to a Holy Mount, a very important Orthodox pilgrimage centre. I’m not a religious person by any means, but I find sacred spaces fascinating. The power of faith mesmerizes me, even if I only observe it from far away.
As you might know, over 90% of inhabitants of my birth country are Roman Catholics. Many of them are religious and regularly practicing. Churches are full on Sundays, you can spot religious symbols in public places, and we have (catholic) religion classes at school. Church officials are influencers. Catholicism is still to be one of core values of Polish national identity. Some people say in public that a real Pole must be a Catholic.
As you might guess, I’m not a big fan of this discourse. Everyone has a right to believe in something. I believe in dialogue. The fact that there are successful political parties that exclude religious minorities from public debate on all levels disgusts me.
With the current right-wing government, pluralism is often described by pro-government media as something negative, a tendency that puts Polish nation at risk. I couldn’t disagree more. Writing about minority culture is my personal protest.
Poland has a rich history of ethnic and faith diversity. This is what we should remember and cultivate. That’s why I love eastern Poland. It is one of the few regions where Poles still speak dialects, and where people of different faith are neighbours.
While visiting Poland for Christmas with my partner and family, I had a chance to revisit Grabarka. It was a gloomy winter day. Everything was gray. After taking a few pictures I couldn’t feel my fingers. I wasn’t sure if any of this material will be good enough to be published.
I loved it anyway. A visit to the hill of votive crosses left there by pilgrims is always a spiritual experience. A photogenic one, by the way. Traditionally pilgrims bring the crosses on August 18th and 19th to celebrate The Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The tradition was established over 300 years ago. It is estimated that the number of crosses that you can see at the top of the hill today exceeds 10 000. The temple was set on fire several years ago, but fortunately part of the votive crosses has survived the attack.
I loved photographing them. Each and every one of them is different. Many have inscriptions left by pilgrims. It is such an unique sight. I was freezing, but happy.
Then I came back home and discovered that Grabarka doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page in English. It barely exists outside of Polish internet. So, here is a little gallery honoring this incredible place and Orthodox minority in Poland.
Have you ever heard of this place? Would you like to go there?